Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Prodigal Son (1981)

The Prodigal Son (1981)

April 19th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The world of Chinese opera is one of tradition, superstition, dedication and perseverance. In the south, Cantonese opera has been passed down for centuries in much the same way even into modern times. Now laws prevent the kind of rigorous training of young children apprenticed to an opera master as was previously the norm. But many of the key figures in Hong Kong action cinema took this route in life, including Sammo Hung the director of The Prodigal Son (1981.) Through his long years of training, Sammo has developed a great love of Chinese martial arts, both practical and theatrical along with the history and myths surrounding them. Because of this and a string of hit films he was able to direct a series of kung fu films dealing with just these topics.

Yuen Biao plays Leung Jan, a major figure in Chinese martial arts of the nineteenth century and instrumental in the development and popularization of Wing Chun. In the film he believes himself to be an experienced martial artist, but this is far from the truth. Lam Ching-Ying plays Leung Yee-tai another historical figure. He is a performer and boatman who takes pity on Leung Jan. The Cantonese opera troupe on whose boat they both reside evokes the legends of patriotic pro-Ming rebels hiding and working for the downfall of the Manchurian Qing dynasty. Together they run afoul of a Manchu prince who also fashions himself a master fighter.

This is the second Sammo Hung film dealing with the history of Wing Chun, the first being Warriors Two (1978) looking at an even earlier time. The recent hit Ip Man (2008) is similarly concerned with the legends of Wing Chun. But what makes this film particularly important among thousands of Kung Fu films produced in Hong Kong over the years is the talent and scope of its ambitions. Firstly besides Sammo, who has a not insignificant role in the film, we have his opera brother Yuan Biao. They formed a trio of promising opera graduates along with Jackie Chan known as the three brothers. Each represented the fruits of a childhood of intensive training in acrobatics and theatrical fighting of the first order. Hailing from a rival opera school, Lam Ching-Ying is another legend in the industry. He became famous for playing female roles in opera productions, something referenced in the film. What they did together was to create a film with an extraordinary level of realism. Fighting and what it takes to win are neither glamorized nor portrayed without consequences. For those familiar with the genre, this is a very special film indeed.

Hong Kong, Director Sammo Hung, Cast Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Sammo Hung and Frankie Chan, 100 minutes, in Cantonese with English subtitles.

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